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“Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” asked former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan after his 1987 acquittal in a high-profile larceny and fraud case. There isn’t one, of course, but at least Donovan had a jury verdict of “not guilty” in hand as he asked his plaintive question. The defendants in the now dismissed Hollywood sex-abuse civil cases don’t even have that, and maybe never will.
In fact, their legal travails may not even be over. Wednesday’s decision by a Hawaii federal judge that accuser Michael Egan III would be permitted to withdraw his case against the last remaining defendant, X-Men director Bryan Singer, was — paradoxically — a loss for Singer and came over his objection. That’s because Egan’s withdrawal was a dismissal without prejudice, meaning that he can refile. What Singer had asked for was a dismissal with prejudice, a judicial determination that Egan’s case had collapsed.
“[Singer] fails to demonstrate that harm to his reputation constitutes plain legal prejudice,” wrote U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway. “Any alleged damage to [Singer’s] reputation may well be ameliorated by plaintiff’s voluntary dismissal of the action,” she added in a passage that seemed to brush away what was evident to Donovan almost twenty years ago. The judge’s ruling came without a hearing.
Egan had already dismissed without prejudice his Hawaii cases against the other three defendants, Gary Goddard, David Neuman and Garth Ancier. Also withdrawn without prejudice were four Los Angeles cases filed by Egan against John Doe defendants who appear to be the same four men sued in the Hawaii cases.
Certainly, Egan’s cases appear to have crumbled. He claimed in his suits that Singer and three others had sexually abused him in from 1997 to 1999, when he was about 15 to 17 years old, and he, his mother and his lawyer broadcast the allegations at standing-room only press conferences in April. Talk of Hollywood sex rings abounded amid white-hot publicity and intense public interest, some of it tinged with homophobia, and the lawyer, Jeff Herman, suggested many more plaintiffs and defendants of various genders and permutations were to come.
But in a matter of weeks, Egan’s own prior statements seemed to undo him. The abuse allegedly took place at mansions in Los Angeles and Hawaii, but it turned out that in 2003 Egan had said in a sworn deposition that he’d never been to Hawaii and that no one other than the occupants of the Los Angeles mansion had sexually molested him. Back in 2000 he’d sued those men, tied to a now-defunct company called Digital Entertainment Network, but had made no mention of the four whom he sued almost a decade and a half later. He had even signed a statement in 2003 that he’d never had sexual contact with Neuman. In addition, several of the defendants filed evidence such as credit card receipts and witness declarations to show that they hadn’t been in Hawaii during the period in question.
In June, Ancier filed a malicious prosecution suit against Egan and Herman, and soon afterwards Herman withdrew as Egan’s lawyer. Egan found new counsel, but with a twist: The new lawyers are advising him, but not representing him in court. That put Singer’s counsel in knots.
Herman surfaced one other plaintiff, an anonymous U.K. actor referred to as John Doe 117, who sued Singer and Goddard. The suit against Singer was dismissed, and Goddard’s motion to dismiss is pending.
Ancier’s malicious prosecution suit will be hard to win, precisely because the dismissal of the case against him was without prejudice. Singer would likewise have a difficult time should he choose to file — another consequence of the district judge’s decision to allow Egan to walk away from his suit.
Meanwhile, the new attorneys may be undeterred by Egan’s apparently inconsistent sworn statements: When asked what Egan would do next, one of the lawyers, Vince Finaldi, told the Associated Press coyly, “I’ve got to leave a little bit of cliffhanger here.”
That could mean various things. A suit by Egan against Herman is certainly possible. But would Egan’s new attorneys actually refile cases against the four defendants even in light of Egan’s prior statements? They might, or they might choose to draft a complaint and send it to the defendants without filing it. That tactic — designed to extract a settlement — could leave the four defendants twisting in the wind and once again wondering how to break free of salacious accusations that even the accuser has now withdrawn on eight separate occasions.
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